The foundation of Turkish theater is linked to a controversial name: Hagop Vartovian.
He was born as Hagop Gulluyan on August 18, 1830, in Constantinople. We know little about his first years, except that he went to school from 1846-1848. He debuted as an actor in May 1862, playing with the Oriental Theater in the last performance of their first season. He later moved to Smyrna, where he translated his last name into Armenian and turned it from Gulluyan into Vartovian (Turkish gülli /Armenian vartov “with rose(s)”). In 1862-1863 he acted and directed the Vaspurakan group, which played in Armenian, French, Turkish, and Greek. In 1867 he was back in Constantinople as director of the Asiatic Society group, and played Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s homonymous play, which marked the first time that the Bard entered the Western Armenian stage (after a performance in 1865 in the Mekhitarist school system without female characters). In 1869 the group was renamed Ottoman Theater, and it would cement Vartovian’s fame. In the same year, he premiered Vart and Shoushan, one of the plays of eighteen-year-old poet Bedros Tourian (1851-1872), who became one of his authors.
The great fire of Pera (nowadays Beyoglu) in May 1870 engulfed the entire district. Actress Azniv Hrachia, one of its witnesses, wrote in her memoirs: “The fire of Pera came suddenly; I cannot describe that terrible catastrophe, that horrible day as it was. I will just say that the entire neighborhood of Pera was in flames; the wealthy became poor, the mothers were left without children, and the children without mothers. There was not a single family with one or two members missing. Many families were found asphyxiated in the stone houses as a group. The fire did not only devour an infinite wealth, but also thousands of lives. Pera was in flames from fourteen sides, as if the fire was coming from the sky. Many people were burned in the streets.”
The fire destroyed all the theaters and decorations of Pera, as well as the dwellings of many actors and actresses. Only the group of Hagop Vartovian, which functioned in the neighborhood of Gedikpasha, was able to continue regular performances during the 1870-1871 season. In the same year, Vartovian ensured a ten-year permit from the Sultan, with the support of Prime Minister Ali Pasha, as the only theater allowed to present performances in Turkish. The group played in Scutari (Uskudar) in the summer, and it also had performances in Kadikoy and Pera. It had an eighty-people organization behind it, including actors, singers, and dancers, but also the auxiliary staff. The famous satirist Hagop Baronian wrote in a profile of Vartovian: “To say the truth, thanks to Vartovian’s tireless work our nation today has a theater. Once he organized the group, he hired translators and started to criticize the flaws of the nation with foreign plays, like that man who slaps a stranger and thinks to have stricken the son.”
The Ottoman Theater continued functioning until its dissolution in 1882. Vartovian had to sell everything to make a living and maintain his wife and three children. For a while, he was designated director of the court’s theater group. However, following the wishes of Sultan Abdul Hamid, he converted to Islam and adopted the name of Güllü Agop. He passed away on February 2, 1898, and was buried in the Yahya Efendi cemetery of Beshiktash.